An amazing comeback

3 April 2002

At the Global Nuclear Energy Summit in February, US energy secretary Spencer Abraham commented on a number of initiatives that will affect the nuclear industry.

The old thinking in the USA represents a view of nuclear energy frozen in time since 1979, when the public image of nuclear power was dominated by Three Mile Island. This old view condemns nuclear power as too expensive, too risky, and too unreliable. However, more recent history points to a brighter, more promising future.

Nuclear power has made an amazing comeback in the USA. Just 10 years ago, a nuclear plant would be lucky to run at 70% capacity. Today, the average plant runs at 90% capacity. This increased capacity translates into an additional 23GWe on the grid. These improvements are no accident. Over the last decade, utilities have found that the most efficient, cost-effective plants were also the best managed.

Six reactor facilities have received new 20-year licences recently, and virtually all US plants will follow in the next few years. Despite an increased willingness to pursue relicensing, there are still no new plants being built in the USA. There are many reasons for this. Over the last two decades, it was clear that the USA did not need large additions in capacity. And there was certainly no interest in building big, capital-intensive units.

Obviously, lingering public concern about the safety of nuclear power plants is an ongoing challenge. But the industry has operated its plants safely, efficiently and professionally, and earned the trust and respect of a growing proportion of the public. Recent polls indicate that 65% of the public believes in the use of nuclear power.

This positive outlook must be tempered by the realities of life since September 11. Safety at our plants is a legitimate concern. The NRC and its counterparts around the world, including the IAEA, are working hard to address these issues.

Even beyond these important concerns, there are significant barriers that make it difficult for a utility to make the business decision to order a new nuclear power plant - barriers that increase financial risk and create uncertainty. We need to bring these barriers down.

First we need to extend the Price-Anderson Act. This legislation represents an essential promise made by the government in the early days of commercial nuclear power that must be kept in the present.

Second, we need to answer questions about the disposal of nuclear waste. A permanent geological repository will promote energy security by removing a roadblock to the expansion of nuclear power; promote national security by safely locking away dangerous nuclear waste forever; and help us clean up the environment.

There are also other barriers that must be cleared away. Where are the new plants to be built? Can they be licensed? Finally, are advanced reactor technologies an option in the USA? Answering these questions and removing uncertainties can best be addressed by a new public-private partnership between the DoE and the US utilities. An ambitious target has been set for this work. It is the DoE's goal to remove these barriers in time to enable a new US nuclear plant to be built and brought online by the end of this decade.

This is to be achieved through Nuclear Power 2010. Under this programme, the government and private sector will work together to explore sites that could host new nuclear plants to demonstrate the efficiency and timeliness of key NRC processes designed to make licensing of new plants more efficient, effective and predictable, and to conduct research to make available the safest and most advanced nuclear plant technologies.

The programme will explore a range of potential sites before any decision to build a plant is made. The DoE will support the process to receive NRC early site permit approval for several sites and thus know at the start where industry can build the next plants. To get this work started, two nuclear utilities, Exelon and Dominion Resources, are analysing both private and federal sites as potential nuclear plant locations. These studies will test the NRC process for evaluating sites owned by utilities and sites on DoE reservations at Savannah River, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and the Portsmouth site in Ohio.

These studies are the first step. They will be followed by the DoE issuing an offer to all utilities to share the cost of selecting sites and demonstrating the NRC evaluation process. Identifying and obtaining NRC permits for acceptable sites will remove a major hurdle to the construction of a new US nuclear plant by 2010.

Congress will have a chance to show its support this year as it considers the 2003 budget request. The administration has proposed $38.5 million be applied to the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative in the next fiscal year.

The DoE will also offer to share the cost of demonstrating the new regulatory process that enables utilities to obtain combined construction/operating licences. Proving that this 'one-stop' licensing process works will remove a major risk in investing in new nuclear power plants. The DoE intends to establish a competitive process to encourage utilities to coalesce around the most promising nuclear plant technologies. One or two nuclear plant designs are close to meeting the economic requirements of the market. The DoE will consider supporting the certification of these designs and their application in the one-step licensing process.

Regarding the question of whether advanced technology can be brought to the US market, it is intended that the DoE and industry will carry out the required research to ensure that advanced gas reactor technology, such as the pebble bed modular reactor and the gas turbine modular helium reactor, can be considered as real options in the USA. This research is already underway through a joint programme at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In addition, using mechanisms such as the Generation IV International Forum, it will be possible to establish strong international cooperation to leverage US funding. The DoE hopes to work with countries such as South Africa and France to demonstrate these technologies and make them available to the market late in this decade.

These technologies are capable of generating the high temperatures required to drive the thermochemical processes needed to generate large quantities of hydrogen. The ability to produce clean electricity by day and clean hydrogen by night may prove to be the key to the future success of nuclear power.

While ambitious, the 2010 goal is well within reach. A recent report from the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee noted that, if this work is completed, there are several advanced nuclear plant technologies that could be put into operation by the end of the decade.

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